not your villain cb lee

Interview: C.B. Lee on Superheroes, Representation, & ‘Not Your Villain’

If there’s one thing we can’t get enough of, it’s superheroes. The powers, the adventures, the angst, the romance. There’s a lot to love. But as captivated as we are by the latest Marvel movies and DCTV shows, sometimes you can’t help but crave a different type of superhero story. If you can relate, author C.B. Lee’s Sidekick Squad series may be just what you’re looking for.

Not Your Sidekick (2016) introduced Jess, a seemingly normal (i.e. powerless) teen in a family of heroes who came into her own as a uniquely talented meta-human and helped uncover a larger conspiracy. In Not Your Villain, which released last week, we shift to the perspective of Bells, a transgender teen who is one of Jess’s best friends.

We met Bells in Book 1 – both as himself and his superhero alter-ego, Chameleon. Thanks to the aforementioned heroes/villains conspiracy and a massive cover-up, Bells soon finds himself framed as a villain and working with his friends to take down a corrupt government. All in a day’s work, right?

We had the chance to chat with the delightful C.B. Lee about her latest novel, the writing process, and representation – which is one of the things this series absolutely nails. Read on for our full conversation.

I was surprised by the opening of Not Your Villain, which revisits a significant chunk of Not Your Sidekick, but from Bells’ point of view. Was his side of this story something you had in mind when writing the first book? Why was it important for you to kick off the second this way?

C.B. Lee: Yes, absolutely! While writing Not Your Sidekick, I mentioned to one of my friends who I was brainstorming with that I couldn’t possibly fit the entire story I wanted to tell in one book, and she simply said, “Then write more than one.” There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that Jess (and the reader) didn’t know about, so it was so great to get to tell what was happening from Bells’ perspective during his book. I knew I didn’t want to just kick off the second novel right where the first leaves off since I really wanted to introduce readers to Bells’ background and all about his training because we revisit a lot of that, what it means to be a hero.

not your villain cb lee

While Sidekick followed Jess as she discovered her powers and fell in love, Villain is all about Bells (a.k.a. Chameleon) – a trans boy kicking ass in the League of Heroes before being branded as one of the bad guys. What’s your favorite thing about Bells? How was writing him different from writing Jess?

Lee: Bells is a bit of a smart aleck! He’s funny and cool and I adore him. He’s definitely different than writing Jess; it was easy in her perspective to describe Bells because Jess thinks he’s cool, but in Bells’ own head it’s just how he is. There was a really fun scene I got to write with Bells at school and everyone clamoring to say hi to him and it’s a fun way to show how other people see him. I also loved that the first thing he says when he figures out he’s been kidnapped is “Fancy meeting you here, how can I help you?”

I love Bells’ determination and his resourcefulness and just his overall love and loyalty for everyone he cares about; he’s such a dynamic and fun character and I’m so happy to introduce him in Not Your Villain.

The diversity and representation in this series is so beautiful and treated with such care – with basically every letter of LGBTQ depicted, not to mention the asexual/aromantic spectrum. We know that representation is important and that we need more of it, but can you talk about how you personally approach that aspect of the Sidekick Squad series?

Lee: I think it’s important to show characters in books and movies and TV shows that people can relate to; that it reflects communities that are real. It’s so important to have a visible representation, especially for marginalized identities. I think growing up I felt so broken because I didn’t see many people like me; I felt wrong and that it wasn’t normal and alone. I think it’s such a wonderful feeling to see positive representation, to be able to say “Oh, that’s me too!” and to feel visible and seen and valid.

I wanted to write more characters from every aspect of the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who are underrepresented. There are aromantic people and asexual people and demisexual and demiromantic and people all over the spectrum who may or may not know it yet, and I hope seeing characters talking about and discovering their identity is important.

We meet a great variety of new meta-humans in this book – both heroes and villains. Any favorites you can tease for those who haven’t read the book yet? Where do you draw inspiration for all their cool powers?

Lee: I have quite a few favorite new characters! Sasha and Tanya are twins with complementary powers who you meet in Bells’ training class; one can summon anything she’s ever touched to her side and one can teleport anything anywhere she’s ever been. I really loved them and their personalities and also their powers, which were so much fun to come up with.

I love so many comic books and fantastic sources; there are a few nods to traditional powers we see in superheroes like strength and flight, but I wanted to draw a little more on powers that were unusual or what people (or the Heroes’ League of Heroes, for that matter) found unimpressive or not that useful. For example, Christine has quite a formidable power— she can control any type of fabric and thread and manipulate it to her will, but according to the League, it doesn’t have that “cool” factor. There’s also a caveat in my world that all powers are limited in the amount of daily use, depending on the power level of the character, that’s why there are different classifications of heroes and villains, from A to F. So you might have a character who is extremely powerful, an A-class meta-human, who can use their powers for a long period of time, but this power might be something like… changing the colors of the walls.

I draw inspiration from everywhere! The world, other books and media, and often times cool powers are fun to think about in my day to day life in what would be useful or just fun to have.

Beyond spending much more time with Bells in this book, we also get to learn more about Jess’ brother Brendan; Abby, the daughter of Master and Mistress Mischief; and Emma, Jess and Bells’ best friend. Can you tease whether we might see one of them as the central POV for Book 3?

Lee: Emma is going to be the main character in the third novel in the series, Not Your Backup! We’ll get to explore more as the Sidekick Squad takes action against this government conspiracy.

About C.B. Lee

C.B. Lee is a bisexual Chinese-Vietnamese American writer based in Los Angeles, California.

NOT YOUR SIDEKICK was a 2017 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in YA/Children’s Fiction and a 2017 Bisexual Book Awards Finalist in Speculative Fiction. SEVEN TEARS AT HIGH TIDE was the recipient of a Rainbow Award for Best Bisexual Fantasy Romance and also a finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards in the YA and Speculative Fiction categories.

For more on the Sidekick Squad and more upcoming projects, you can follow C.B. Lee on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Not Your Villain is available now.